Why do Catholics eat fish on Fridays and when did this start?
— Stan in Liberty
It may well be at this time of year that the most frequently asked question of Catholics concerns the eating of fish on Fridays.
First, we should recall that Catholics are obliged to refrain from eating meat on every Friday during the year (see canon 1251). There are, though, as is often the case with canon law, exceptions: unless the Conference of Bishops decides otherwise, or a particular Friday happens to be a Solemnity.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has decided to allow Catholics to eat meat on Fridays outside of Lent if — and here’s the kicker — they perform a different act of penance in its place. I know.
Second, we should note that we are not required to eat fish on Fridays; we are to abstain from meat. In the Latin, we are told to abstain from carnis, which from the most ancient of times has always meant the meat of things that walk on the ground. This practice seems to date from as early as the first century.
There are many people — even today — who claim Catholics eat fish on Fridays because one of the medieval popes wanted to help support the fishmongers, a claim that is quite false. There is, however, some semblance of history to this claim, but about the Church of England and not about the Catholic Church. In 1563, Queen Elizabeth I, the daughter of King Henry VIII, mandated fasting from meat on Wednesdays specifically to support the fishing industry.
Catholics eat fish on Fridays because they cannot eat meat (and, apparently do not want to eat a meal of only grains, fruits, or vegetables).
A couple of years ago I stumbled upon an intriguing explanation as to why we eat fish on Fridays but not meat. The explanation comes from the 15th century, from one John Myre in his Liber Festivalis: “For when God, for Adam’s sin, cursed the earth and the land, he cursed not the water; wherefore it is lawful for a man to eat in Lent that which cometh of the water.” To put it differently, we eat fish as a reminder of God’s mercy. Ponder that and try that answer the next time someone asks you about your fish sandwich.
Father Daren Zehnle is pastor at St. Augustine Parish in Ashland and St. Peter Parish in Petersburg and is the director for the Office of Divine Worship and the Catechumenate for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.